PRINT March 2017


Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion

Terence Davies, A Quiet Passion, 2016, 4K video, color, sound, 126 minutes. Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon).

“BIOGRAPHY FIRST CONVINCES us of the fleeing of the Biographied,” Emily Dickinson once observed. She might well have been talking about herself, for she’s the elusive subject par excellence. We know almost nothing about her. She died relatively young, at the age of fifty-five, and for the last decades of her life chose not to venture outside of Amherst, Massachusetts, or for that matter beyond the confines of her family’s property. She published only a handful of poems, and we’re not sure why she shunned, if she really did, the fame she often mentioned in her verse. (“Fame is a bee”; “Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man.”) She never married, although she passionately addressed someone she called “Master,” whose identity is unknown. And she wrote some of the most stunning lyrics of any poet, ever.

If this isn’t fodder for speculation, nothing is. Countless novels, biographies, songs, dramatic works, and even museum exhibitions have tried to guess the source of her talent, her wild originality, her iconoclasm. And now the gifted British film director Terence Davies has stepped into the breach with his biopic A Quiet Passion, using some but not all of what we know about Dickinson: that, for instance, she was born in 1830 to a prominent family deeply involved in the welfare of Amherst College, where first her father and then her brother served as treasurer. (The college is not mentioned in the film, though in one scene the Dickinsons host something called a “commencement ball.”) When she turned sixteen, Dickinson enrolled at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a forerunner of Mount Holyoke College, which was at that time run by an evangelical woman concerned with the state of her students’ souls. She left after a year. We don’t know why. In the movie, her sister Vinnie (a radiant Jennifer Ehle) says Emily was bullied.

She liked botany, kept a herbarium, read Emerson and the Brontës as well as the Bible and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She said she did not read Whitman, having heard he was scandalous. She may have been joking. Davies’s adult Emily (Cynthia Nixon) mentions only female authors, and she ridicules Longfellow’s bouncy meter in one of the film’s most delightful scenes. The poet’s herbarium does not appear in the film, but Davies places a beautiful garden awash with trellised roses in the rear of the Dickinson home, a stately yellow brick affair with splendid green shutters. (The colors in the film are gorgeous.) She was writing poetry—completing more than one thousand poems by 1865—but she stopped making social calls. As she put it, and as Davies quotes, “I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town.” She did send poems, often several versions, to friends and family, and she bound selections of her verse into hand-sewn booklets. Davies’s Dickinson is often seen at her desk sewing these booklets, although for those unfamiliar with Dickinson lore it may be difficult to guess what she’s doing.

She maintained a close relationship with newspaper editors, who in the movie seem to be doing her father a favor when they consent to print her verse. She also befriended the well-known writer and radical abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who visited her, at her behest, twice. He spoke at her funeral after she died, apparently also at her behest. He too is excised.

But in historical fiction or biopics, we care about what remains; historical accuracy is less important than truth of character, and in the case of Dickinson, the more imagination, the better, particularly because she is easy to caricature as a nut-ball recluse who composed cryptic poems and then, for unaccountable reasons, began to dress only in white—long before Mark Twain and Tom Wolfe. On them, white is eccentric; on her, it’s considered weird.

Women beleaguered by social expectations have inspired several of Davies’s finest films, notably the elegant House of Mirth (2000) and, more recently, The Deep Blue Sea (2011) and the gem Sunset Song (2015). In A Quiet Passion, for which Davies also wrote the screenplay, the filmmaker casts Dickinson as a rebel who as a girl (played by Emma Bell) boldly stands up to Holyoke Seminary’s grim headmistress, Mary Lyon (Sara Vertongen). In the film’s austere opening scene, Dickinson says she wishes she could feel as others do but cannot. Outraged, Miss Lyon, who resembles the Wicked Witch of the West, then condemns Miss Dickinson as a “no-hoper.” In the evangelical parlance of the day, she’s saying Dickinson has no chance of being saved; this vignette sets the tone of the entire film.

Hope is the ingredient sorely lacking in this life of Dickinson. Early in the film, in a voice-over, Nixon reads the poem that begins “For each ecstatic instant / We must an anguish pay.” Presumably because of her maverick soul, Davies’s Dickinson pays and pays. Released from the imprisoning seminary by her stern but kindly father (Keith Carradine), she will kneel before no one. When Mr. Dickinson, at the dining-room table (for some reason, the rest of the family is absent), complains that his china dinner plate is dirty, Dickinson grabs the offending dish, smashes it to pieces, and haughtily retorts, “It is dirty no longer.”

Yet Carradine humanizes Dickinson père, which isn’t easy to do. In stilted dialogue—a problem in a movie where people speak in epigrams rather than colloquial English—he, too, worries about Emily’s soul. Evidently she’s protecting it from religious dogma, but she’s also wary of all social conventions, particularly those curtailing a woman’s freedom. She tells her depressive sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May) that “no husband” would permit her to write poems in the wee hours of the night, although her father does. Apparently agreeing, Susan confides that she’d delayed marriage to Emily’s stiff-necked brother Austin (Duncan Duff) because “the thought of man in that particular respect turned me to stone.” Poetry is better. Or not, since Dickinson mordantly replies, “But you have a life. I have a routine. It is God’s one concession to a no-hoper.”

No hope? Hope of what? It’s not quite clear. The room in which this intimate conversation occurs is dark, and dark interiors, softly illuminated by candle- or gaslight or the reflection from a flickering fire, place us within the inner spaces where, as Dickinson once wrote, “the Meanings, are.” Much of the movie takes place in such shadows; they contrast nicely with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister’s otherwise dazzling palette of yellow, brown, and various hues of green. The cinematography is one of the most consistently compelling aspects of A Quiet Passion, along with the elaborate costumes by Catherine Marchand, who subtly reveals how Dickinson, with her increasingly monochromatic frocks, differs in character from her luminous sister, who favors more richly patterned ones.

Time, distance, and isolation are the unapologetically melancholy themes of A Quiet Passion. Davies is partial, as in other of his films, to loudly ticking clocks and cameras that leisurely travel full circle around a parlor where people sit in silence. He also likes windows. His female protagonists typically peer out of them, as if looking into a future they can’t quite imagine, or recalling the sadly departed past, as in the case of Dickinson’s languishing, depressive mother (played with lugubrious seriousness by Joanna Bacon). And he uses voice-over to great effect, as he did in Sunset Song and in his evocative documentary Of Time and the City (2008). In A Quiet Passion, Nixon fluidly reads Dickinson poems that showcase the writer’s off-rhymes and startling images (“He fumbles at your Soul”). Unfortunately, though, in a voice-over, these poems are tougher to understand than when viewed on paper, and they’re pretty difficult there.

Though Davies largely avoids the most anthologized poems, Nixon does recite a familiar “I’m Nobody! / Who are you?” to Austin and Susan’s newborn child in a scene that makes little sense, ending as it does with a stricken Mr. Dickinson, newspaper in hand, declaring that Fort Sumter had been fired upon. Soon afterward, a montage of colorized photographs of the Civil War (mainly Alexander Gardner’s famous images) flash disconcertingly on the screen. Since Austin has not marched off to war, and war barely ripples the surface of the Dickinson home, the images are out of place. And slavery has been discussed mainly in mannered terms. When Vinnie laments that more than six hundred thousand men died in the war, Emily tartly replies, “And for what? To end slavery? Which should never have flourished in this country in the first place.” As a proto-feminist, she then lectures her brother in contemporary lingo that “gender” is slavery too. Well, not exactly.

That the smoldering Dickinson covets recognition is never in doubt. When the family servants proudly announce that her bread won five dollars at the local fair, the expressively agile Nixon registers Emily’s pleasure, then abject disappointment. She had only been awarded second prize. And when she gives some of her poetry to the buttoned-up Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren), she seems desperate for his approval, since no one wants what she has to offer—or so she bitterly observes. “Ah, to be racked by success,” she moans, and as far as a posthumous reputation is concerned, that’s “only for those who when living weren’t worth remembering.” The irony, the irony.

She alleges she’s averse to marriage, or at least she prefers that her friend, an annoyingly pert Vryling Buffam (played with wide-eyed archness by Catherine Bailey) stay single. Twirling her parasol, Buffam delivers such pellets of wisdom as “We all become the thing we most dread” and “Radicals don’t thrive in this country.” After Buffam marries and Mr. Dickinson dies, Emily dons a sack-like, figure-concealing white gown that she wears for the rest of her days. With manic intensity, and great costuming, Nixon has transformed the girlish rebel into a self-lacerating isolato who, alone in her room, ecstatically fantasizes about a man come to rescue her. (The credits at the end of the film simply call him “Looming Man.”) “We become the very thing we dread,” Dickinson repeats. Intolerant, resentful, grief-stricken, she soon collapses to the floor in the uncontrollable seizures that mirror her mental anguish. These are some of the most agonizingly long sequences in the film.

It’s the supple performance by Ehle as the loving Vinnie that makes A Quiet Passion come to life. Nixon does the best she can, but Davies’s Dickinson is at last a hopeless female neurotic, misunderstood, craving fame, taking no real risks, and masking her multiple fears with an illusion of independence. For despite marvelous costumes, this costume drama never quite lays aside the trappings of stereotype. And so it seems the sly poet has eluded us yet again.

A Quiet Passion opens nationally in the US on April 14. “I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson” is on view through May 28 at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

Brenda Wineapple is the author of White Heat: The friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf, 2008), among other titles.